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Bricks kiln in Pakistan. Kilns contribute to 20% of the world’s black carbon emissions. Credit: Tamseel Ahmad / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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Blog 29 April 2024

New multi-million programme to tackle black carbon

Tom Grylls
Black carbon and other climate super pollutants contribute significantly to climate change and millions of premature deaths each year. Clean Air Fund’s new $12.9 million programme will generate scientific research, build coalitions and implement solutions to cut black carbon emissions.

Super pollutants, also called short-lived climate pollutants, are powerful drivers of climate change. Their potential to warm the atmosphere can be many times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) despite remaining in the atmosphere for much shorter periods of time. So, reducing them is critical to realising fast climate mitigation.

One super pollutant, black carbon, is particularly important because it plays a unique role in the climate system (see What is black carbon? below). Black carbon, or soot, is a key factor behind the Arctic warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, glaciers melting alarmingly quickly, and the growing unpredictability of monsoon rains.

Some super pollutants, including black carbon and tropospheric ozone, are also air pollutants, contributing to high levels of illness and mortality worldwide. They also damage food security through reducing crop yields.

Despite the damage black carbon causes to human and planetary health, it remains untracked and uncapped by most governments. Alongside decarbonisation, the global climate community is beginning to turn the spotlight onto super pollutants, including black carbon.

What is black carbon and why is it important?

Black carbon, often referred to as ‘soot’, is a short-lived climate pollutant and component of fine particulate matter produced through incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biomass, and waste. It is often emitted alongside  other climate forcers, including CO2, carbon monoxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds and organic carbon.

Black carbon emissions influence the climate system by absorbing sunlight, affecting cloud cover and accelerating the melting of snow and ice. It worsens global warming, snow and ice melt, monsoon and weather patterns, flood risk, and heat stress. Also, black carbon is a harmful air pollutant and significantly contributes to more than 8 million premature deaths from air pollution andthe trillions of dollars of economic cost (6% of global GDP) each year.

Tackling black carbon is also a development and climate justice issue. It often comes from using harmful fuels and practices, like kerosene, diesel and waste burning, which have a disproportionately large effect on disadvantaged communities.

Solutions exist to cut black carbon emissions now, with near-immediate benefits. For example, replacing diesel generators with renewables near the Arctic; swapping kerosene lamps with off-grid solar across Africa; and transitioning to cleaner zigzag brick kilns in South Asia.

Black carbon is an extremely short-lived climate pollutant with an estimated lifetime of just 1-2 weeks in the atmosphere. Its effects are felt most strongly close to its source. Therefore, reducing black carbon emissions will realise local and regional benefits almost immediately.  Cleaner air and regional climate benefits can be realised within the time scales of a typical electoral cycle.

Global momentum on black carbon is growing

The latest science highlights the importance of strategically tackling super pollutants to minimise global warming over the next few decades and to avoid the worst effects of climate change in time.

Pivotal discussions on super pollutants took place at COP28, including at our side event on the Case for Action on Black Carbon. The outcome text of the COP negotiations included a call for governments to accelerate and substantially reduce non-carbon dioxide emissions.

In the upcoming revision of the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)  Gothenburg Protocol, governments will consider how to further reduce black carbon emissions. The black carbon emissions targets set in the Arctic Council’s Fairbanks Declaration will expire in 2025, necessitating a revision for Arctic Council members and observers.

The European Parliament recently approved a revision of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive, which highlights black carbon as a “pollutant of emerging concern”. The legislation also calls on EU member states to monitor black carbon.

The methane movement offers a successful model of collective global action on a super pollutant. More than 150 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. More than $1 billion in grant funding was mobilised for methane abatement at COP28. By following this example, we can capitalise on the growing support for targeted efforts to curb the emissions of other super pollutants, like black carbon.

Pioneering programme on black carbon

In response to the escalating need to address black carbon, the Clean Air Fund has launched a ground-breaking $12.9 million programme to address the super pollutant’s detrimental impacts on climate, health and the environment.

Our ambition is to see countries slash black carbon emissions by 35% below 2010 levels by 2030 and thereby achieve climate mitigation consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5˚C. A business-as-usual scenario projects only a 3% reduction in black carbon emissions over the same period (see figure below). We need to go further to avoid climate tipping points, build local resilience and deliver clean air.

Over the next three years, Clean Air Fund will look to elevate black carbon in climate and clean air processes to achieve this scale of emissions reductions. Our new initiative will:

  • Resolve scientific bottlenecks that inhibit progress on black carbon reduction, including much-needed research on scientific uncertainties, and generate a compelling case for action. 
  • Build coalitions and alliances spanning health and climate to join a global call for action.
  • Secure pledges by national governments to cut their emissions.
  • Showcase the feasibility of solutions to reduce black carbon emissions and drive funding to scale up implementation.

As the world grapples with the escalating twin threats of climate change and air pollution, addressing black carbon emissions emerges as a pressing imperative. From global forums like COP to targeted initiatives like our super pollutants programme, we’re part of the global movement to catalyse transformative action to protect people and planet.

If you’d like to learn more about our super pollutants programme and would like to be included in any future updates, get in touch with us directly at superpollutants@cleanairfund.org. This programme is supported by the Quadrature Climate Foundation and Sequoia Climate Foundation.